I’ve experienced loneliness as a leader. People told me this would happen when I first started in student ministry twenty years ago, and I’ve heard it said more than once since. I’ve even told others to expect it, as the reality of “the lonely leader” became true in my own life. Based on conversations I’ve had with other ministry leaders, it is likely that someone has made this declaration of probable loneliness to you as well.
Truth be told, this loneliness wasn’t something I just experienced in the beginning twenty years ago. I didn’t grow out of it. It’s something I’ve dealt with throughout my time as a leader in ministry and in my leadership here at Lifeway. I’ve also recently come to understand the flaw in how I viewed this loneliness and in how it was explained to me.
Here’s the flaw: I accepted the loneliness because I believed it was just part of being a leader. I believed the call to ministry came with a call to loneliness and being secure in my calling meant that I needed to just power through the loneliness. I never talked to anyone about it. I stuffed it down. I tried to deal with my loneliness in isolation, believing that ministry was just meant to be this way. Sure, I prayed about it and sought the Lord over it many times, but I left those moments thinking this must be my “thorn in the flesh” that was never quite going to be taken away.
Here’s the truth I know today: loneliness, if left unchecked, is dangerous and unhealthy.
Think about it like this: every car made today has a dashboard with warning lights connected to sensors throughout the car’s systems to warn you if something is wrong. When a warning light comes on, you are meant to take action. If you ignore it, you are in danger. I think loneliness works the same way. It’s a God-given feeling for us to be used as a warning light. When we see the light, we are meant to take action, yet many of us in ministry ignore it because we believe it’s just part of life as a leader. Stop ignoring the warning light God has given you. It is there to help you, not to teach you a lesson on suffering. Here are some things I’ve learned to check up on when the warning light of loneliness comes on in my life.
- Be vulnerable. When you choose to be vulnerable with the right people–– with people you can trust–– it counteracts the unhealthy side of loneliness because people actually begin to know the real you, rather than the leadership you. If you are married, this should start with your spouse as the person who God has designed for you to be most intimate with. Being vulnerable is an act of intimacy, and you have to be willing to take a risk in letting people see the real you. I’ve found when I choose to take this risk, it opens another level of relationship and friendship with people I didn’t know existed.
- Seek biblical community. The key word here is “biblical.” Seek community where God’s Word is central to what is going on. This is more than just hanging out with a group of friends. In those moments, you can still put up a wall of fakeness and you won’t be forced to engage with others around what God’s Word is saying to your life right now in real time. This can be a home group, discipleship group, Sunday School class, or whatever else you might call it at your church. For you, the student pastor, this is difficult because of your schedule. It is likely that you will have programming that you’re responsible for during the times when these groups are offered. This is why I say “seek.” You will have to make this a priority and work for it if it is going to happen. I didn’t work for it and spent thirteen years as a student pastor without ever being in an ongoing biblical community with other adults. That was not the right path.
- Draw close to the Lord. This should go without saying, but I’ve found it’s those types of things that need to be said most often. When one of your warning lights starts flashing, you need to spend special focused time with the Lord. This is beyond your normal studying, your normal devotional time, and preparation to lead or teach. Warning lights need special attention and when this one is flashing, you need to set aside time to sit with the Lord and dive deeply into His word and His presence.
- Talk to a professional. Don’t be afraid to talk with a bible-centered counselor. There is a lie within ministry leadership that you need to have everything together and perfect in order to fulfill the calling that God has placed on your life, and that pastors are the ones who should be doing the counseling rather than receiving it. The reality is, as pastors, our warning lights do light up, and we aren’t meant to have it all together. We are growing in sanctification in the same way as the people we are pastoring and when we ignore those lights in the interest of keeping up the perfect pastoral facade, we open ourselves up to more danger down the road. Sometimes an issue with your car is beyond your ability to diagnose and understand, so you take it to a professional mechanic. There are moments when this will be true for you emotionally as well. Let go of the pride and make an appointment with a professional, biblical counselor.
We aren’t meant to simply get used to loneliness in our lives. It isn’t something that comes along with our calling and it isn’t something to be ignored. Loneliness, if left unchecked, is dangerous and unhealthy because it leads to isolation. Bonhoeffer has written these words in his book Life Together: “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.”
There are people who care about you. There are people who want to join you in this journey to follow Jesus who don’t believe you have to be perfect. There are people who want to help you in the same ways that you help others. My hope for you is that you begin to throw away the belief that a call to ministry is a call to loneliness.
This post was written by Ben Trueblood, Director of Lifeway Students. You can follow Ben on Twitter here – @BenTrueblood